Category Archives: Strategic Outlook

Piracy 2.0 : The Net-Centric Evolution

Network-Centric Warfare derives its power from the strong networking of a well-informed but geographically dispersed force. – VADM Arthur Cebrowski, Proceedings 1998

Almost twenty years ago the pages of Proceedings carried an article by RDML Cebrowski that introduced the concept of network-centric, or net-centric, warfare.[1] The concept transformed the manner in which the United States (U.S.) Navy operates and fights. The principles that defined net-centric warfare remain relevant as they support Navy’s current pillars of Information Dominance: Battlespace Awareness, Assured Command and Control (C2), and Integrated Fires. The success of net-centric warfare has not gone unnoticed. Navies around the world are working to develop their own net-centric solutions. As a result, the U.S. Navy should not be surprised when enterprising individuals around the world similarly take note and make the evolutionary leap from traditional piracy to net-centric piracy.

While piracy has been a scourge for the duration of human history, the technological advances of the 21st century provide potential pirates transformational means, methods and opportunities. While the world has yet to witness a case of net-centric piracy, the two scenarios below present possible piracy events leveraging today’s technology.

Basic Net-centric Piracy

Sixty-two nautical miles south east of Singapore – 17JUL15 1154C: An Indonesian pirate opens his laptop and logs onto the internet via satellite phone. His homepage is a commercial Automated Identification System (AIS) website providing real-time track data from coastal and satellite receivers.[2] The laptop, satellite phone and website subscription were all funded by his investors.[3] As he scans his homepage, he looks for AIS contacts that meet his desired vessel profile for cargo type, transportation firm, flag, and speed of advance. Today there are two AIS tracks of interest matching his profile and likely to pass through his preferred zone of operation, MV OCEAN HORIZONS and MW ORIENTAL DAWN. He then checks weather conditions and determining that they are favorable, he sends individual texts messages containing coordinate and track data for the AIS tracks of interest. The text recipients are two fishing boat captains, one located in Belawan, Indonesia and the other in Dungun, Malaysia.

Indonesian Pirates
From: The Maritime Executive – Indonesian Pirates

Forty-six nautical miles east of Belwan, Indonesia – 17JUL15 1646C: MV ORIENTAL DAWN passes a non-descript fishing boat 46 nautical miles off the coast of Indonesia. Unbeknownst to the crew of the MV ORIENTAL DAWN, this fishing boat is captained by the pirate’s associate from Belawan. The fishing boat’s captain discretely observes the passing vessel through a pair of high-powered binoculars. Seeing barbed wire along the railings and an individual on the ship’s deck that does not appear to be a member of the crew, the fishing boat captain utilizes a satellite phone to call and report his observations to his Indonesian pirate contact. Based on this information the Indonesian pirate determines that MV ORIENTAL DAWN is not a suitable target.

One-hundred seventeen nautical miles east of Singapore – 17JUL15 1707C: The Indonesian pirate receives a call. This time it is the fishing boat captain from Dungun. The captain reports that the MV OCEAN HORIZONS is loaded down creating a smaller freeboard and there does not appear to be any additional security measures present. Given this assessment, the Indonesian pirate decides that MV OCEAN HORIZONS is a target of opportunity. He immediately has the crew of his ship alter course.

Thirty-seven nautical miles east of Pekan, Malaysia – 18JUL15 0412C: The Indonesian pirate launches two high-speed skiffs from his ship, both carrying multiple armed personnel. The Indonesian pirate mothership remains over the horizon, but in radio contact while the skiffs conduct the remainder of the intercept.

Sixty-two nautical miles east of Pekan, Malaysia – 18JUL15 0642C: The armed personnel from the skiffs board MV OCEAN HORIZONS and catch the crew off guard. Once in control of the ship, they contact the Indonesian pirate via radio and report their success. The Indonesian pirate immediately opens his laptop and reports his success to his investors. He also lists the ship’s cargo for auction on a dark website and sends a ransom demand to the employer of the MV OCEAN HORIZON crew.

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Sophisticated Net-centric Piracy     

Moscow, Russia – 17JUL15 0126D: After a series of all-nighters over the last week, a Russian hacker has gained access to a crewmember’s computer onboard the MV PACIFIC TREADER.[4] Using this access he maps the shipboard network. Discovering a diagnostic and maintenance laptop used for the ship’s automation and control system on the network, he quickly exploits the laptop’s outdated and unpatched operating system to install a tool on the automation and control system.[5] The tool enables a remote user to either trigger or disable a continual reboot condition. Once installed, the hacker posts the access information for the tool’s front end user interface in a private dark web chatroom.

Prague, Czech Republic – 16JUL15 2348A: Sitting in his Prague apartment, a pirate receives a message on his cellphone via a private dark web chatroom. The message is from one of several hackers he contracted to gain access to control or navigation systems onboard vessels operated by the TRANS-PACIFIC SHIPPING LINE. With the posted access information, he logs onto his laptop and tests his access into the MV PACIFIC TREADER automation and control system. After successfully establishing a connection he closes out of the tool and electronically transfers half of a contracted payment due to his hired hacker. Next using a commercial AIS website providing real-time track data from coastal and satellite receivers, he determines that MV PACIFIC TREADER is likely headed into port in Hong Kong.[6] Posting a message in a different private dark web chatroom, the pirate provides the identifying information for MV PACIFIC TREADER.

Hong Kong, China – 19JUL15 0306H: On a rooftop in Hong Kong, a young college student pulls an aerial drone out of her backpack. She bought it online and it is reportedly one of the quietest drones on the market. She also pulls three box-shaped objects out of her backpack. Hooking one of the objects to the drone, she launches it and flies it across Hong Kong harbor in the direction of a ship she identified during the day as the MV PACIFIC TREADER. Using the cover of darkness she lands the drone on the top of the pilot house and releases the object. Repeating this process twice more, she places the box shaped objects on other inconspicuous locations on the ship. After bagging up her drone, she posts a message to a dark web chatroom simply stating that her task is complete. Almost immediately afterwards she receives a notification that a deposit was made into her online bank account.

Prague, Czech Republic – 25JUL15 1732A: After eating a home-cooked meal, the pirate sits down at his laptop and checks the position of MV PACIFIC TREADER via the commercial AIS website he subscribes to. Observing that the MV PACIFIC TREADER is relatively isolated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, he opens the remote tool that provides him access to the ship’s automation and control system. He sends a text message and then clicks to activate the tool.

Two-thousand ninety-three nautical miles north east of Hong Kong – 26JUL15 0332K: Onboard MV PACIFIC TREADER an explosion engulfs the bow of the ships sending flames into the dark air. Immediately, the ship’s engines roll to a stop as the navigation and ship’s control system computers go into a reboot cycle. The lone watchstander on the bridge is paralyzed to inaction by the surprise and violence of the events unfolding around him. The Master immediately comes to the bridge, completely confused by the events occurring onboard his ship.

Prague, Czech Republic – 25JUL15 1736A: The pirate confirms via his remote tool that the ship’s automation and control system is in a continuous reboot cycle, then he re-checks the commercial AIS website and confirms that MV PACIFIC TREADER is dead in the water. He immediately sends an email to the TRANS-PACIFIC SHIPPING LINE demanding a ransom, stating MV PACIFIC TREADER will remain dead in the water and more explosive devices will be activated until he is paid.

New means – Same motive

These scenarios illustrate how the evolution of technology and the increased connectivity of systems and people potentially enable a fundamental shift in the nature of piracy. Despite the change in means and geographic distribution of actors, net-centric and traditional piracy both utilize physical force or violence, or the threat thereof, by a non-state actor to seize or detain a vessel operating on the high seas. The key enabler of net-centric piracy is the Internet.

Piracy Hot Spots

The Internet is the net-centric pirate’s “high-performance information grid that provides a backplane for computing and communications.”[7] Admiral Cebrowski argued that this information grid was the entry fee for those seeking net-centric capabilities.[8] What Admiral Cebrowski did not know was how rapidly the Internet would evolve and enable near-instantaneous global communications at relatively low costs, allowing anyone who desires access to a high-performance information grid.

As the net-centric pirate’s high-performance information grid, the Internet serves as a command and control network as well as the means for disseminating intelligence information, such as vessel location or the presence of physical security measures. The intelligence that is disseminated may also have resulted from collections performed via the Internet. One collection means is to leverage the vast area of private and commercial data sources available for public consumption, again at little or no cost, such as shipping schedules and AIS data. A second means of collection uses the Internet to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) via cyber techniques; however, only the most sophisticated net-centric pirates will possess this capability. Similarly, highly sophisticated net-centric pirates may be able to achieve global weapons reach by producing physical effects via cyber means over the Internet, eliminating the need for the pirate to be physically present in order to seize or detain a vessel.

Somali Pirates
From: OCEANUSLive – Somali Pirates

The attractiveness of net-centric piracy is the low barrier to entry, both in risk and cost. Since the Internet is the key enabler of net-centric piracy, its low cost and ease of use vastly expand the potential pirate population. The anonymity of the Internet also allows potential net-centric pirates to meet, organize, coordinate and transfer monetary funds with a great degree of anonymity. As a result, the risks of arrest or capture are significantly reduced, especially since a net-centric pirate may not be able to identify any of their co-conspirators. Similarly, the ability of net-centric piracy to enable remote intelligence gathering or even produce physical effects via cyber techniques removes a significant element of physical risk associated with traditional piracy. The monetary gain from the successful capture of a vessel compared to the low cost and risk currently associated with net-centric piracy make it an attractive criminal enterprise.

Countering Net-centric Piracy

The United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Article 101 defines piracy as:

  1. any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:
    • on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
    • against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;
  2. any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;
  3. any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (1) or (2).[9]

Under this internationally recognized legal definition of piracy, net-centric piracy clearly results in violence against or detention of vessels on the high seas for private ends. It is also clear from this definition that any activities associated with facilitating a piracy event, such as intelligence collection or compromising a vessel’s computerized control systems, are also considered piracy under international law. International law also states that “All States shall cooperate to the fullest possible extent in the repression of piracy on the high seas or in any other place outside the jurisdiction of any State.”[10] As a result, the international community must resolve how it will counter net-centric piracy, where pirates need not operate on the high seas and may be located thousands of miles from the target vessel.

The challenge facing the international community from net-centric piracy is compounded by immaturity of international cyber law. Currently the authorities and responsibilities of international organizations, governments and law enforcement agencies with regards to the use of the Internet to commit piracy are undetermined. This challenge is further complicated by the fact that the Internet is a manmade domain where all potions are essentially within the territory of one state or another. As a result, disrupting net-centric piracy operations will require a significant degree of international coordination and information sharing. Extensive international cooperation will also be required to identify, locate, and apprehend individuals involved in net-centric piracy.

Pirates
From: Encyclopedia Britannica – Pirates utilize a range of weapons and technology

While an occurrence of net-centric piracy has yet to occur, the opportunity and capabilities required for such an event exist today. The U.S. Navy should not be caught off guard. Instead, the Navy should take the following actions:

  • Raise awareness within the international maritime community regarding the risks and realities of net-centric piracy
  • Provide best practice and limited cybersecurity threat information to transnational maritime shipping companies
  • Work with partner Navies to develop means and methods for disrupting net-centric piracy, including developing an appropriate framework for information sharing and coordination
  • Work with Coast Guard, law enforcement and international partners to develop a cooperative construct for identifying, locating and apprehending net-centric pirates
  • Engage with the State Department to advance international dialog on net-centric piracy, including the need for consensus on international law and processes for prosecution of net-centric pirates

An enduring lesson of human history is that opportunity for profit, regardless of difficulty or brevity, will be exploited by someone somewhere. Net-centric piracy represents an opportunity to generate revenue without requiring the physical risks of traditional piracy. The anonymity and distributed nature of the cyber domain also creates new counter-piracy challenges. Add to this the low cost and availability of unmanned system components coupled with the low barrier of entry for cyber, and the question becomes not whether net-centric piracy will occur but when. With a global interest in maintaining the international maritime order and ensuring the uninterrupted flow of commerce on the high seas, the U.S. Navy must be ready to meet the challenges of net-centric piracy.

[1] VADM Arthur K. Cebrowski and John H. Garstka, “Network-Centric Warfare – Its Origin and Future,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Volume 124/1/1,139 (January 1998).

[2]https://www.vesseltracker.com/en/ProductDetails.html

[3] “Somali Piracy: More sophisticated than you thought,” The Economist (November 2nd, 2013), http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21588942-new-study-reveals-how-somali-piracy-financed-more-sophisticated-you

[4] Jeremy Wagstaff, “All at sea: global shipping fleet exposed to hacking threat,” Reuters (April 23rd, 2014), http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/24/us-cybersecurity-shipping-idUSBREA3M20820140424

[5] Mate J. Csorba, Nicolai Husteli and Stig O. Johnsen, “Securing Your Control Systems,” U.S. Coast Guard Journal of Safety & Security at Sea: Proceedings of the Marine Safety & Security Council, Volume 71 Number 4 (Winter 2014-2015).

[6]https://www.vesseltracker.com/en/ProductDetails.html

[7] VADM Arthur K. Cebrowski and John H. Garstka, “Network-Centric Warfare – Its Origin and Future,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Volume 124/1/1,139 (January 1998).

[8] Ibid.

[9] United Nations, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (New York: United Nations, Article 101, 1994).

[10] United Nations, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (New York: United Nations, Article 100, 1994).

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Navy, Department of Defense or Government.

LCDR Brian Evans is a U.S. Navy Information Dominance Warfare Officer, a member of the Information Professional community, and a former Submarine Officer. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and holds advanced degrees from Johns Hopkins University, Carnegie Mellon University, and the Naval War College.

Call for Articles: Future of Naval Aviation Week, Sep 14-18

CIMSEC content is and always will be free; consider a voluntary monthly donation to offset our operational costs. As always, it is your support and patronage that have allowed us to build this community – and we are incredibly grateful.



Week Dates: 14-18 Sept 15
Articles Due: 9 Sept 15
Article Length: 500-1500 Words
Submit to: nextwar(at)cimsec(dot)org

Back in January, CAPT Jerry Hendrix (USN, Ret) and CDR Bryan McGrath (USN, Ret) had a stirring debate on the future of Aircraft Carriers. However, the debate quickly shifted from the carrier itself to the nature of the airwing it carried. Indeed, the carrier is nothing more than a host for the platforms provided by naval aviation – and only one of many ships that can carry aviation assets.

That discussion, driving into the world of the carrier air wing, was the inspiration for this week of discussion on naval aviation in general. From the maritime patrol aircraft deployed from the reclaimed Chinese reefs in the South China Sea, to US Army Apaches operating from amphibious assault ships, to 3-D printed drones flown off a Royal Navy offshore patrol vessel, to manned and unmanned ideas for the carrier air wing as carriers proliferate around the Pacific  -we want your ideas and observations on where global naval aviation will and can go next.

How will the littoral navies of the world change with new, lower-cost unmanned aviation assets? Are carriers armed with legions of long-range unmanned drones the future for global powers – will these technologies exponentially increase the importance of smaller carriers – or is unmanned technology a limited path that may be resisted (rightfully?) by pilots and their communities? Will surface fleets embrace the potential from easily produced drone swarms deployed from ships of the line… should they? What is the future of land-based naval aviation? What innovations will be ignored, what will be embraced, and what will the air assets of future fleets around the world look like? What will the institutions, the leadership, and C2 structures that support all these assets of their varied nations look like? The topic is purposefully broad to bring forward a myriad of topics and inspire future topic weeks on more specific subjects.

Contributions should be between 500 and 1500 words in length and submitted no later than 9 September 2015. Publication reviews will also be accepted. This project will be co-edited by LT Wick Hobson (USN) and, as always, Sally DeBoer from our editorial pool.

Matthew Hipple, President of CIMSEC, is a US Navy Surface Wafare Officer and graduate of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. He hosts the Sea Control podcast and regularly jumps the fence to write for USNI and War on the Rocks.

A Pacific Rebalance with Chinese Characteristics

 Guest post for Chinese Military Strategy Week by Justin Chock

China’s newest national military strategy provides further insight on the framework that Chinese leaders use for their routinely enigmatic decision-making processes. The current paper builds on previous military white papers, which necessitates a look to previous editions in understanding the most recent one. Comparing the 2013 Defense White Paper with the 2015 strategy shows a great deal of overlap, but more interesting than the party lines consistent over many years are the differences, including the absence of key issues, from the most recent document. A reading of China’s Military Strategy alongside an analysis of contemporary events in the Sino-Japanese relationship illuminates a subtle shift in Chinese strategy since late 2013 from the East China Sea toward the South China Sea in China’s own Southeast-Asia Pacific Rebalance centered on the Maritime Silk Road.

Controversial island building by the Chinese and surveillance flights by the U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander have highlighted the significance of South China Sea relations within the past few months, but the 2015 Chinese Military Strategy further reflects this importance. In the paper, China highlights their “South China Sea Affairs” that encounter the “meddling of other powers,” a point notably lacking from the 2013 White Paper given the long history of the dispute and the degree of scrutiny that decision makers put into these documents.

SouthChinaSeaReclamation-Economist
South China Sea Land Reclamation Efforts by Country, Economist

But observers may question why Chinese planners decided to undertake the hugely provocative project of island building and why the 2015 paper would touch upon it. Part of the reason may deal with the timing of the building with respect to other claimants. Vietnam began its land reclamation around 2010, and the Philippines followed suit with runway construction in 2011.

So China was not the first to engage in island-building activity (although the speed and scale of the projects vastly outweighs the Vietnamese and Philippine efforts); instead China, under the comparatively bolder Xi administration after 2012, decided to run full speed in the race to grow its claims starting in October 2013 when the projects were first spotted. This start date coincided closely with the One Belt One Road announcement in September 2013 and Maritime Silk Road announcement in October 2013, with the latter running directly through the South China Sea and near the disputed areas. Additionally, the October 2013 efforts post date the 2013 White Paper, published on April 16, 2013, allowing time for a strategic shift that was not solidified until after the document’s publication (or was perhaps deliberately omitted).

Major Crude Oil Flow in the South China Sea, Bloomberg.
Major Crude Oil Flow in the South China Sea, Bloomberg.

So, for China it appears the importance of island building in the South China Sea lies in ensuring secure maritime lanes for both its current trade and for the heightened flow that will come from the Maritime Silk Road. As a comparison of China’s land and sea economic trading shows, the nation is effectively an economic island, and the vulnerable flow through the South China Sea is the lifeblood of China’s economy. Should the nation lose control of that flow, its economy would be crippled, the consequences of which the Chinese people (and the Chinese Communist Party, which owes a great deal of political legitimacy to its economic growth) do not want to risk. The result: islands to enable enhanced oversight of the sea lanes.

As important as the addition to the 2015 paper, however, are its omissions. The 2013 paper depicts a “Japan (that) is making trouble over the issue of the Diaoyu islands,” but nowhere in the 2015 version is there an explicit mention of the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. The only mention of Japan in the new strategy addresses the “overhauling [of] its military and security policies” (an understandable mention given the recent Japanese Diet bill increasing the scope of Self Defense Force operations) and its potential inclusion with the above South China Sea “meddling powers,” though the latter is not explicitly stated. The decision to remove an explicit mention of the Diaoyu islands dispute mention from the 2015 document is significant. This significant shift is reflected in recent reports of oil rigs in the East China Sea showing that China is choosing to literally not cross the line with Japan in this contentious geography. Statistical anomalies and shifting tactics aside, this is consistent with its deeds and not just its actions. If one is to make comparisons—albeit difficult given the different situations between East and Southeast Asia—a provocative statement toward Japan equivalent to South China Sea island building would be to cross the median line and assert China’s original stance regarding the continental shelf on the Japanese side of the line.

china-japan-us

Instead, China sees the larger picture: the East China Sea is at a stalemate while the South China Sea remains comparatively free to shifts in the status quo. This couples with the decrease in Chinese patrols within Senkaku/Diaoyu waters beginning in October 2013 and coinciding with the beginning of Chinese island-building efforts in the South China Sea. If one were to draw an albeit difficult analogy, a provocation equivalent to island building in the South China Sea would be for China to literally cross the line and assert its original stance on Japanese and Chinese claims to the continental shelf. Yet, it appears that China is taking a holistic strategic view of regional issues and refraining from simultaneous confrontation.

There are a number of reasons why China might decrease its focus on Japan. Whether China feels secure enough in the region with the November 2013 establishment of its East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone or whether Chinese leadership have taken into account the increasingly interdependent economic relationship, the potential to warm the Sino-Japanese relationship, or too much perceived risk in the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, their words and deeds suggest Japan is no longer China’s primary security focus. Instead, China’s military (or at least, its maritime forces, which the National Military Strategy states will be increasingly emphasized) is drawing resources away from the East and toward the Southeast to support the Maritime Silk Road in China’s own Southeast-Asia Pacific Rebalance.

For the U.S., this Southeast-Asia Pacific Rebalance warrants careful consideration of any substantial increase in support of Japan or major shift in Japanese posture (e.g., expanded operational scope for the Japanese Self-Defense Force [JSDF]). Since a shift in the current balance may force China to once again focus on the East China Sea, for both the U.S. and Japan this suggests the wisdom of measures to reassure China. For example, emphasizing that the JSDF’s increased scope does not imply a corresponding increase in hostile intent or the targeting of that scope against China.

With respect to the South China Sea, and extending the analogy between the East and South China Seas, awareness of this rebalance places more decision-making leverage in American hands. Should the U.S. want to deter China in these waters as in the waters surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, stationing troops in the region, partnering with Southeast Asian allies, or reconciling with states in Southeast Asia and along the Maritime Silk Road are all potentially viable approaches. These approaches will become increasingly important as the Road is further established in the coming years and as China correspondingly shifts its focus to these waters; as China shifts focus to Southeast Asia, the U.S. must shift focus as well.

The new U.S. National Military Strategy falls in line with this thinking, describing how China’s “claims to nearly the entire South China Sea are inconsistent with international law,” and thus are a strategic focus of the U.S. However, conscious efforts must be made to maintain this momentum as China’s Rebalance appears to be a long-term project. This includes, as the Chinese Strategy states, further partnerships with states along the Maritime Silk Road as it expands, the groundwork of which will require diplomatic and political work today in preparation for the Road’s expansion. While other pressing issues (e.g., Russia, ISIL, etc.) top the top list in describing the strategic environment in the U.S. Strategy, the American Asia-Pacific Rebalance must endure as the long-term strategy.

China's Martime Silk Road
China’s Maritime Silk Road

This interest in increased U.S. presence along the Maritime Silk Road is reciprocal. For Southeast Asian leaders, China’s rebalance marks the beginning of more vigorous Chinese engagement in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia as a whole. These nations must be prepared for increased Chinese presence and attention, and plan for higher levels of more friction geopolitical friction. Each nation’s approach will depend on their unique circumstances, but allowing U.S. counterbalancing forces into the region is one of a handful of options for adapting to the changing circumstances.

For all parties, tensions in the South China Sea present a serious challenge to both joint economic growth and regional security. While the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute will remain on China’s agenda, the evolving Chinese military strategy and Chinese actions suggest that South China Sea is the next area of focus for the rising nation. This gives the region and the states within it an increasing strategic priority that cannot be ignored.

CIMSEC content is and always will be free; consider a voluntary monthly donation to offset our operational costs. As always, it is your support and patronage that have allowed us to build this community – and we are incredibly grateful.

The Unnamed Protagonist in China’s Maritime Objectives

Guest post for Chinese Military Strategy Week by Amanda Conklin

China’s ability to exercise its power in the maritime domain is essential to advancing its economic interests and ensuring its security. Attention to safeguarding maritime rights and interests was documented in China’s 2012 National Defense white paper, and the 2015 Chinese Military Strategy white paper has expanded the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) area of operations from offshore defense to include open seas protection. As the PLAN moves into the open ocean, the responsibility for offshore defense and protection of China’s interests in its near seas will fall to the China Coast Guard (CCG). Changes in the organizational and operational mandates of the CCG are paving the way for it to become a more important actor in the achievement of the PLA’s traditional and non-traditional security objectives.

17liuimg-popup
Liu Huaqing in March 1996. Associated Press, Greg Baker

Since the 1980s, China’s changing threat perceptions and growing economic interests have catalyzed a shift in the strategic orientation and the perceived utility of naval forces. By 1987, PLAN Commander Admiral Liu Huaqing established a strategy referred to as offshore defense, expanding the bounds of China’s maritime defenses beyond coastal waters to deter, delay, and if necessary, degrade potential intervention in a regional conflict. Offshore defense is associated with operations in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea (China’s near seas), covering 875,000 square nautical miles. The Philippine Sea, a key interdiction area in the event of a conflict over Taiwan or in the South China Sea, expands the battlespace by another 1.5 million. In this vast space, navies and coast guards from seven regional countries and several forward-deployed nations combine with tens of thousands of fishing boats, cargo ships, oil tankers, and other commercial vessels in an area often referred to as “China’s 3 million square km of blue territory.”

From the founding of the PRC in 1949 until the mid-1980s, China’s strategic concept of naval operations was limited to coastal defense (the inherent mission of any coast guard), with an emphasis on defending China’s coast from amphibious invasion. As the PLAN shifts away from patrolling the near seas and expands its area of operations, the CCG will need to meets demands to operate well off China’s coast. Many in the U.S. view the CCG’s activities in the East and South China Seas as a product of a coordinated national strategy. The goal is quiet expansion — as opposed to a loud invasion and occupation by the PLA.

Evidence of a strategy can be traced to possible visions guiding procurement decisions made years in advance, such as the State Council’s approval of plans to purchase dozens of rights protection cutters in 2010. Protecting China’s expanding coastlines, as well as fishermen and maritime companies, requires the CCG to conduct operations further from their home ports and for longer periods of time. For example, a 2012 standoff between China Maritime Surveillance (former CCG) vessels and the Philippines Coast Guard at the disputed Scarborough Shoal lasted for ten weeks, and since then the CCG has maintained a continuous presence there to preempt a recurrence of that event. This could put the CCG in an uncomfortable and unsustainable operating scheme unless it procures large ships, recruits enough officers for numerous and simultaneous rotations at sea, and coordinates communications and collaboration across 3 million square km of blue territory.

In 2013, China consolidated its maritime law enforcement (MLE) agencies to better protect China’s sovereignty and safeguard its maritime interests. During the March 2013 National People’s Congress, the Chinese government announced a new State Oceanic Administration (SOA) that would essentially form a “fist out of fingers” by combining the organizations and the responsibilities of the existing SOA and four MLE agencies into the China Coast Guard (CCG), which maintained a purely civilian status. The consolidation allows the CCG to more flexibly deploy patrol ships from its larger fleet in response to sovereignty challenges and maintain its presence in hotspots.

Additionally, during the last decade, China’s MLE forces have increased both the sizes of their ships and overall capability. As of March 2015, China had 95 large patrol ships (over 1,000 tons) and 100 patrol combatants between (500-1,000 tons). The current phase of the construction program, which began in 2012, will add over 30 large patrol ships and over 20 patrol combatants to the force by the end of 2015. This will increase the overall CCG force level by 25 percent — faster growth than any other coast guard in the world.

South-China-Sea
Map of territorial disputes in South China Sea.

Although the CCG has taken an increased role in asserting China’s maritime sovereignty over disputed areas, PLAN vessels still share the responsibility for patrols in China’s territorial waters, contiguous zones, and exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The PLAN’s close relationship with the CCG certainly helps deter counter actions by other claimants. When the CCG responds to an incident, the PLAN will likely also deploy destroyers and frigates several dozen miles behind to provide an indirect, over-the-horizon presence. This approach intimidates smaller claimants and contains larger ones, but also limits the potential for confrontations to escalate since most CCG ships are not heavily armed (though some are refitted navy vessels with permanent torpedo tubs and gun turrets that add a factor of intimidation to the CCG’s presence). Given the recurrence of confrontations, China is wise in not using armed PLAN ships, but arguably, deploying the CCG allows China to be more aggressive against foreign civilian ships than it could be with the PLAN. Instead, while CCG activities assume a militarized connotation, PLAN ships make friendly port calls to China’s neighbors.

China’s controversial use of the CCG to assert its sovereignty in maritime disputes and expand China’s presence in disputed areas gives it the unique privilege of being the world’s only maritime law enforcement (MLE) agency to regularly make international headlines for activities other than botching rescue missions. The CCG’s press coverage, however, has been overwhelmingly negative for causing conflagrations with China’s neighbors, and the fallout of its activities has reinforced China’s need for its sustained presence. China must reconcile that the CCG’s activities to advance its interests in the South China Sea have inspired Southeast Asian nations to strengthen their own MLE organizations. The Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia have already turned to the U.S. and Japan for help increasing their capacity.

China’s use of the CCG has created a conundrum for the U.S. Navy, but it does not want to risk a conflict by using the 7th Fleet to check China’s white hull advance. Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) does not have a dedicated presence in the area (its closest port is at Guam), and funding troubles have already stretched its capacity for traditional missions. Even though the USCG has 42,190 active duty service members compared to the new CCG’s 16,296 billets, the USCG is not concentrated in a single region. It has a global mission ranging from the Arctic to NATO countries to the Pacific. Thus, the USCG, like other branches of the U.S. military, has placed emphasis on utilizing and building the capacity of its partners in the region – an asset the U.S. has more of than China (the new military strategy only named Russia as a partner).

The growing possibility of clashes at sea is troubling. If the CCG is able to easily coerce smaller actors in China’s various maritime disputes, especially in the South China Sea, and institute a new status quo to safeguard China’s interests, this would have serious implications for freedom of sea navigation and safety of passage, as well regional stability and peace. If the U.S. and its partners believe this is the goal of a comprehensive strategy, building more capable maritime law enforcement and coast guard organizations in Southeast Asia could deter Beijing from maritime expansion. However, China’s approach to its maritime interests goes beyond the CCG’s veiled offensive, or active defense, maneuvers. China’s hybrid strategy also involves legal, economic, high-tech, and cyber elements that are less likely to provoke a large-scale war and do not fit neatly into challenges addressed by traditional military strategies. Adequately addressing the role of CCG as an increasingly capable civilian implementer of China’s foreign policy and unique tool in China’s military missions will require the U.S. and its partners to consider new, comprehensive policy options in the Asia-Pacific.

Amanda Conklin was a Fulbright in Macau from 2012-13 and is currently working on Asia policy issues in the field of international affairs. The views presented in this article are her own.

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